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#MeToo In A Culture Of Good Old Boys

Susan Marsh says Forest Service created ripe conditions for backlash

For women in U.S. land management and wildlife agencies, the struggle to be treated as equals has sometimes felt like marching into a wildfire. Photo courtesy Kristen Honig / NPS
For women in U.S. land management and wildlife agencies, the struggle to be treated as equals has sometimes felt like marching into a wildfire. Photo courtesy Kristen Honig / NPS
Read any history of the U.S. Forest Service and you can’t avoid the references made to the Forest Service “family.”

Fellow employees, no matter where you were stationed, would take you in when you were stranded in a strange town and greeted you like an old friend at a regional meeting. Strangers would see you in a uniform or green rig and wave you over for a chat. Where spouses and children lived together at remote work outposts, the Forest Service was literally an extended family, with wives taking care of matters at the compound while the men spent their days afield.

Men Wanted” reads a 1905 recruitment poster advertising for forest ranger recruits. “A ranger must be able to take care of himself and his horses under very trying conditions; build trails and cabins; ride all day and all night; pack, shoot, and fight fire without losing his head. … It is not a job for those seeking health or light outdoor work… Invalids need not apply.” It was unnecessary to add that women need not apply. Who among the fairer sex would want to?

A century later, in the age of Equal Opportunity Employment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and mandatory civil rights/diversity training for every USDA employee, the verbiage of the recruitment poster now might bring a snicker or a nostalgic sigh. But though the Forest Service has changed greatly, it has long resisted growing beyond its rugged-male roots.

In 1905, it was assumed that only men were capable of laborious outdoor work, though by 1913 things had already begun to change. That summer, Hallie Daggett was hired as a fire lookout on Klamath Peak in California. Her colleagues bet she wouldn’t last the season, but she remained for fourteen years.

As time passed, more women were employed to cover clerical tasks when the paperwork got deeper than a ranger could handle on his own, and by World War II women served in many capacities, including field-oriented jobs. Secretarial or temporary help was welcome but female leadership was not.

I began my Forest Service career in 1980. It was only a few years after a lawsuit settlement required more women to be hired in the name of fairness and diversity. The Forest Service resented the judge’s decree and the new employees who arrived because of it. Any woman appointed to a professional or managerial position was assumed to have gotten there simply because of her gender, regardless of whether she was more qualified than her male competitors.
Photo courtesy the Environmental Protection Agency, 1973
Photo courtesy the Environmental Protection Agency, 1973
In the year of my arrival with the agency, much of the Forest Service had moved from field stations to offices. The family turned into a club, and in the places where I worked, women were not invited.

My first reaction to on-the-job discrimination was to try to talk myself out of it. I was being too sensitive, imagining slights that had not actually occurred. But I noticed the veil slide over some eyes when I spoke up at a meeting.

About half the men at the table would stare at their hands or play with their pencils, impatiently enduring my voice. At lunch breaks, male colleagues would circle tightly to plan their escape to the local sandwich shop while I was left to stand aside. Women co-workers verified I was not imagining things, and I proved it to myself at a brainstorming session.

Nothing I said was put up on the flip chart. One of the rangers raised an eyebrow in agreement to something I brought up, so I suggested he repeat it. It worked. I learned to pass notes to the men at the table if I thought I had an idea worth considering.
"Nothing I said was put up on the flip chart. One of the rangers raised an eyebrow in agreement to something I brought up, so I suggested he repeat it. It worked. I learned to pass notes to the men at the table if I thought I had an idea worth considering."
As a seasonal Forest Service employee during the summers between my years of college, I had given no thought to gender politics or organizational hierarchy. My male colleagues and I were friends, classmates and equals, working together and having fun while we earned some tuition money.

There was no hint of sexual harassment. But once I went to work in an office instead of out in the woods, I found that gender mattered. Women filled lower-grade clerical positions; men were professionals and decision-makers. Being one of the few professional women was lonely: we were largely dismissed by the men, resented by the clerks, and condescended to by leadership.

When the chance came to transfer to Montana after a couple of years in remote rural Oregon, it felt as though my dream position was being laid in front of me. But my excitement was mixed with trepidation as I was introduced to my new colleagues in Bozeman.

The forest hydrologist had heard that during my tenure as Federal Women’s Program manager in Oregon I had assisted employees in filing civil rights complaints. Before I could say hello he asked if I was a bra-burner. When I met the current FWP manager at the Gallatin National Forest headquarters I told her what he’d said. She rolled her eyes. “One thing you’ll find out right away,” she said. “This is a hostile working environment for women.”

She’d been right, and when I moved to the Bridger-Teton in Jackson Hole six years later I did so with an even heavier dose of skepticism. How much more of this was I willing to endure? But the people seemed nice on the phone, and because I loved the national forests and didn’t want to work anywhere else, I was willing to give the new workplace a try.

Quitting was always an option, one I held in reserve as I watched the mailman with a walking route smile his way down the sidewalk, every shopkeeper glad to see him. I could do that, I thought.

When it comes to fire-fighting or timber management, the Forest Service is well organized, like the military. You have the primary staff officer, the fire/timber management officer, the assistant management officer, and so on. Some of the other specialties are thrown together, perhaps indicative of how much they are valued by the agency.

When I worked for the Gallatin Forest my boss oversaw recreation and public affairs. The archeologist, wildlife biologist, and I (the landscape architect) also worked for him. The three of us were women, and we were known to the forest leadership team as Ross’ crack crew. By the time I moved to Wyoming, both of the other two had quit.

Discrimination didn’t go away when I came to the Bridger-Teton—it was still the Forest Service after all. But it felt a heck of a lot more like a family than anyplace I’d worked before, especially for the first few years. Over time things changed as leadership changed. Under one forest supervisor, extra-curricular activities meant to bring the line officers and primary staff together off-hours included an excursion to Fremont Lake to go ice fishing.

When the leadership team took a week-long trip to Denver, I walked around town during lunch with a couple of the men who I considered friends. While I was staring at a gorgeous quilt hanging in the downtown public library, they ditched me. Stranded among tall glass buildings, I wasn’t sure I’d ever find my way back to the office where we were supposed to meet. I managed it, arriving late and chagrined. 

One evening the men decided to gather at a topless bar. The forest supervisor, one district ranger, and myself, the only female team members, retired to our hotel rooms. So much for team-building; the message was clear.
"One evening the men decided to gather at a topless bar. The forest supervisor, one district ranger, and myself, the only female team members, retired to our hotel rooms. So much for team-building; the message was clear."
It’s not a totally bleak picture, and I’m sure some places are better than others for female employees. The Forest Service has made impressive progress in the arena of cultural diversity. By the time I retired in 2010, the agency had appointed one female chief, several associate and deputy chiefs, a regional forester or two, and many forest supervisors and district rangers. Progress.
Women have made some strides in attaining leadership positions in federal and state agencies but resistance from the good old boy culture remains a problem.  Here, Bequi Livingston leads the “Women In Wildfire” bootcamp, started in 2012 to empower women to break into the predominantly male wildfire corps. (Kristen Honig/National Park Service)
Women have made some strides in attaining leadership positions in federal and state agencies but resistance from the good old boy culture remains a problem. Here, Bequi Livingston leads the “Women In Wildfire” bootcamp, started in 2012 to empower women to break into the predominantly male wildfire corps. (Kristen Honig/National Park Service)
But statistics don’t tell the whole story. While I was researching a book on my experiences with the Forest Service, I found an on-line blog article from the Forest Service Office of Communications. It stated, in part:

Given today’s opportunities offered to employees of the Forest Service, regardless of gender, race and other backgrounds, it’s difficult to imagine the agency as it was over a century ago. Veteran firefighter and acting Associate Deputy Chief of the National Forest System Patti Hirami is still having fun, even 20 years after she joined the Forest Service.

“I’ve had tremendous opportunities with the agency,” Hirami said. “The opportunities to do almost anything you want are here with the Forest Service.”

I imagined how encouraging this would sound to a young woman right out of college considering a career in the Forest Service. Then I read the single comment that had been posted below, which said this:

I’m a new USDA Forest Service employee and would love to continue my career; however, I’ve been subjected to the below:
• Sexual jokes
• Attempted assaults
• Reprisal for reporting malfeasances
• Slanderous and libel statements
• Stalking
• Intimidation
• Mismanagement
• Fraud, waste, and abuse and threats to not report same
• Witnessed employees spend hours daily on government computers chatting on Facebook and Yahoo
• Threats to end my career for having spoken the truth

After reading this woman’s post I posted a reply myself, asking how the agency planned to respond to her allegations. No response.

This was in 2012, nearly six years ago. I wondered what has changed since, so I searched the Internet. I was not encouraged by what I found.

In December of 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives committee on oversight and government reform held a hearing on sexual harassment and discrimination within the Forest Service. Some of its “take-aways” included:

·      Harassment and discrimination has gotten worse since 2008.

·      Witnesses testified sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, and resulting retaliation has increased since 2008.

·      Whistleblowers shared personal accounts of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and discrimination.

·      The Forest Service has shown a lack of accountability and a poor record of investigating allegations of sexual harassment, with perpetrators often escaping discipline by retiring, moving, or seeking [and getting] a promotion.

Committee members puffed up their ruffled feathers to express outrage by the testimony given by victims of sexual assault and the Forest Service’s official response. One of them said, “I just heard the most glowing account of all of the improvements that have been made over the past eight years, and you mean to tell me that someone can engage in the conduct that [the victim] just described and avoid all consequence whatsoever?” 

Part of the conduct referred to included grabbing and poking the victim’s breast. I can think of other high officials in our government who have done the same or worse, with similar non-consequences. The entire hearing struck me as ironic, given all that’s been happening on the sexual harassment front lately, especially involving elected officials. While the congressmen were eager to jump all over the Forest Service during the last administration, they seem to have quieted down considerably since.

On March 1, 2018, the PBS NewsHour broadcast a special report on sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of its investigation, PBS interviewed 34 current and former Forest Service women. It was no surprise to me that they described a workplace that remains hostile to female employees, especially within the fire organization. They complained of a pattern of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and assault by crew members and supervisors. 
"As part of its investigation, PBS interviewed 34 current and former Forest Service women. It was no surprise to me that they described a workplace that remains hostile to female employees, especially within the fire organization."
Many women alleged retaliation after reporting these incidents. On my to-do list is a series of phone calls to those congressmen who vowed to protect whistleblowers at the hearing in 2012 to ask what they intend to do.

An acting Associate Chief was interviewed to give the agency line. She cited a new harassment reporting center with a toll-free hotline. And, she said, later this year the Forest Service will “for the first time” require every employee to undergo identical sexual harassment training.

For the first time? There has been mandatory civil rights/sexual harassment training every year in the Forest Service for decades. And one thing I’ve observed is this: it’s a waste of time and money. Training does nothing except to provide fodder for the next round of bar room jokes. What needs to happen is for the Forest Service to hire people who are able to act like adults and realize that the taxpayer is not providing them an income so they can harass their fellow employees.

The national forests, from which our clean water flows, to which we go for respite from a world that seems increasingly out of control, deserve the very best.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 7, 2018, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior that were highlighted in the PBS special report mentioned by Susan Marsh in her column.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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